THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: As Kavanaugh Allegations Widen, Elite-College Alumni Recall Harassment From Decades Past

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education issued the following announcement on Sept. 27.

As the Supreme Court confirmation drama drags on, graduates of Dartmouth College and other elite institutions across the country are sharing their stories, some marveling at the lack of consequences the offenders faced.

The anonymous letter from 1973 wasn’t shoved under Jean Passanante’s door, but she has saved it, since then, all the same. It began with a vile, four-letter word, demeaning the first women to seek a degree from Dartmouth College. “Your mere presence at this institution is a direct confrontation to the goals we consider sacred,” it read.

She had transferred to Dartmouth mere months before, in the early days of coeducation. Her peers showed her the letter after someone slipped copies of it under their doors, she said.

Passanante has kept it ever since, stored in a file with her college theater programs. This week she decided to post it online, motivated by allegations that Brett M. Kavanaugh exposed his penis to a woman at Yale University when both were students there, and was part of social clubs whose degradation of female students was seen as part of their fabric. The portrait of Kavanaugh, on the doorstep of a lifetime Supreme Court appointment, that she read in news coverage showed an attitude of privilege and entitlement. It enraged her. And it resonated.

She is not alone. As Kavanaugh’s former classmates share stories from Ivy League residence halls and parties, alumni of elite institutions around the nation, especially female graduates, are grappling with their own memories, some of them recent. They recall loud fraternity parties, online and face-to-face harassment, and campus assaults. The privileged, they say, took what they wanted and left their messes for somebody else to clean up.

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What happened on campuses decades ago had been assumed to be forever locked away from public scrutiny. But now, as Kavanaugh’s confirmation drama drags on, graduates across the country are sharing their stories, some marveling at the lack of consequences the offenders faced.

The college-era allegations against Kavanaugh center on a dorm-room party in the 1983-84 academic year, when he was a freshman. A woman told The New Yorker that she had been picked to drink repeatedly in a game. A male student, identified as Kavanaugh, exposed himself to her as an onlooker called on her to kiss his penis, she said. His freshman roommate said he was a “notably heavy drinker” and “became aggressive and belligerent when he was very drunk.” Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.

The New Yorker article prompted outrage and understanding. In online circles, Yale alumnae wrote messages of solidarity with the woman, Deborah Ramirez. They wrote about avoiding Kavanaugh’s fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon. Her lawyer, Stan Garnett, spoke about some of the racial and class dynamics that had shaped her experience at the university in an interview with The New York Times.Some current students at Yale Law School, from which Kavanaugh also graduated, protested this week in Washington, D.C.

Passanante, a television screenwriter, said she was not sexually assaulted as a student at Dartmouth. Still, she said, she recognizes aspects of her college days in the world described in the allegations against Kavanaugh.

“There’s something about these privileged, the chosen, the white men in their little clusters who are going to have this glorious life of a Supreme Court justice,” Passanante said this week. “The women are there for the picking. They need to step on someone, and they can and they do.”

‘These Are Not Idle Threats’

The Dartmouth letter, published a decade before Kavanaugh’s first year at Yale, was as crude as it was threatening. For the university’s men and women to “live in harmony” on the campus, it said, women needed to expose their breasts in the dining hall, make their “services” available at all times, play naked softball on the central campus green, and perform oral sex on a man identified by a nickname. “These are not idle threats. Our movement is large. Things must change,” it said.

Courtesy of Jean PassananteAs news of sexual-misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh spread, Jean Passanante recalled a vulgar letter she had saved from her days as one of the first women to seek a degree from Dartmouth College.

Perhaps most disturbing, Passanante realized, was how accepted those views were at the time. The letter struck her as horrifying but not violent. A Dartmouth vice president who helped facilitate coeducation said in an oral history that incidents like the letter were “frequent” and “major” concerns to administrators. (That woman, who has since died, was nicknamed “the dildo” in the 1973 letter.)

Diana Lawrence, a Dartmouth spokeswoman, called the language and sentiment in the letter “degrading, deplorable, and misogynistic,” and said administrators had turned it over to campus police officers to investigate. They did not find a specific perpetrator, and faculty members issued statements in support of the women, she said.

For generations, in some cases centuries, many elite private colleges admitted men only. Coeducation brought conflict that lingered for decades, though many of the institutions have taken steps in recent years to make their campuses more affordable and inclusive to students they once shunned, including women, racial minorities, and lower-income students.

Still, Kirsten Ginzky felt similar dynamics at play at the University of Chicago, where she started taking classes in 2011. Her memories of loud fraternity hazing in the apartment unit above her own, and dorm parties at which female students were plied with alcohol by older male hosts, are fresh. Today she works near a Chicago fraternity, which reminds her of the allegations of misconduct that the members face.

“That is the exact type of organization that produces people like Kavanaugh,” Ginzky said. “Kavanaugh could have very easily been my upstairs neighbors, hazing, and getting women drunk on thirsty Thursdays, and participating in the toxic male-bonding culture.”

‘This Is Your Place’

Carole Emberton, who attended Chicago more than a decade earlier, said she saw parts of herself in Ramirez’s allegations. The New Yorker article showed the social dynamics and power that she said had placed Ramirez, and a student like herself, as “on the outside of that elite environment.” Emberton, now an associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York system, grew up in small-town Kentucky and came to Chicago from a working-class background.

She remembers that one of her classmates was related to a foreign ambassador. A role of the elite universities, she said, was to connect and educate the soon-to-be powerful. The allegations against Kavanaugh, she said, are “not about sex.”


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“This kind of behavior is about power, it’s about … marking out territory,” she said. “Targeting people, and sort of saying, ‘This is your place.’”

Patrick Iber, who attended Stanford University in the early 2000s, said the Kavanaugh coverage reminded him of feeling alienated on that elite campus. He recalled wealthy students’ willingness to pay a hefty fee instead of cleaning up their dining trays.

Iber, now an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said he views Kavanaugh’s nomination as an adjudication of sorts of whether American elites can be held accountable for their actions.

Elite universities provide access to networks of privilege, he said. But that power, he said, can be abused. “You make it possible for people to feel as if they belong in that group, and that they deserve that kind of treatment.”

Lindsay Ellis is a staff reporter. Follow her on Twitter @lindsayaellis, or email her at

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